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10 September 2015updated 11 Sep 2015 10:06am

On the shores of the Aegean, where pirates are attacking boatloads of refugees

Last month three Greek men posing as coastguards were arrested for preying on migrants. With so many people on the move, it’s becoming a big business.

By Natasha Tsangarides

“It was the middle of the night when the commandos came,” Mohammed told me. “Commandos” are the pirates of the Aegean. No one knows who they are, but every refugee travelling by boat from Turkey to Greece fears them. So great is that fear that some have taken to lining their pockets with stones before they set to sea, in order to protect themselves.

Mohammed is from Damascus. On 1 August, he was travelling in an inflatable dinghy along with 40 others – including ten children. “We were close to the Turkish coast when they came. They took us on to their boat and searched us, even the women and children. They took my passport, phone and €500. They stole money and mobiles from almost everyone. After that, they broke the motor of the boat and towed us out to sea. We stayed there for six hours, waiting to be rescued. Eventually, the Turkish coastguard came and returned us to Turkey.” Who precisely the attackers were is unclear. “I saw only three men but I think there were four,” he said. “They were dressed all in black with full masks. They didn’t speak a lot, but they spoke in English and another language. I don’t know if they were commandos or the coastguard.”

Stealing from refugees can be big business. Each boat typically holds approximately 45 people. Many leave home with the funds required to smuggle themselves into northern Europe (which can cost around €7,000, depending on your route and smuggler). Sixty-six per cent of those making the journey are Syrian. They come from professional, middle-class backgrounds and have sold everything they own, including their homes, and are sometimes carrying tens of thousands of euros with them.

Not all commando attacks involve theft. The common thread is that the assailants sail alongside the boats cloaked in black and wearing balaclavas, and disable their engines.

Hamed, Marwan and Hussam are from the city of Idlib in north-western Syria. They set off in an inflatable boat from Turkey, along with 45 others, on 15 August. “They circled the boat fast to create waves and make it unsteady,” Hamed recalled. “They were pointing an automatic rifle at us. People were holding up their babies, terrified. They came to the boat and hit two of us with a baton. They broke the engine of the motor and left.

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“I don’t think it’s commandos,” he said. “I think it’s the Greek coastguard. All they did was break the motor. I think they didn’t want us to reach the coast.”

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Between 1 August 2013 and 30 September 2014, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees collected evidence of 152 alleged returns, or “pushbacks”, from Greece to Turkey. Since January, when Syriza came to power with more liberal immigration policies, reports of pushbacks have declined. Recent attacks suggest that the practice may be increasing, only now along the Turkish sea border.

Elias Bierdel is a founding member of Borderline Europe, an NGO that monitors the EU’s external borders. He told me he has not received a single report alleging European or Greek coastguard involvement this year. “As far as we understand,” he said, “it is mostly the Turkish coastguard doing what they can to stop boats crossing. Maybe they are acting under pressure from the EU. It could also be criminally motivated.”

Last month three Greek men posing as coastguards were arrested for preying on migrants. An investigation showed that the suspects had a motorised boat and five engines, together with rifles stashed in a nearby warehouse. There is no consensus on the commandos’ motivation. In some cases it is clearly theft; in others, it is to deter or even drown refugees. 

This article appears in the 02 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses